Education Opinion

Terra Bennett’s Story: Why Tenure Matters

By Anthony Cody — March 29, 2010 5 min read
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In the debate over education policy, there has recently developed a very cynical view of the purpose of tenure. In this view, tenure is used to protect “bad teachers,” and is why our students would be better off without unions. If a school has poor test scores year after year, the theory goes, the teachers must be to blame, and should, at the very least, be required to prove themselves worthy by reapplying for the jobs they have been doing so poorly.

Tenure is actually not an accurate term for what we have in our schools. Due process would be a better term. What we actually have is simply a process that specifies how teachers can be terminated if they are “bad.” But this process is now under attack, especially in schools in poor communities serving students with low test scores.

The story below comes from a teacher at Fremont High School, in Los Angeles. I have been carrying first-hand reports on the pending reconstitution of this school for several months. I invite you to read and think hard about what is happening to our colleagues there. Then join me in discussion below.

Terra’s Story

Here’s how I resigned. I was never too worried about getting another job because of my credential, all my good evaluations, and my reputation.

I am a special education teacher, a Probationary One teacher because I have my credential, but I’ve had it for just under one year. I’ve actually been working at Fremont High School for nearly three years as a Special Day Class teacher, primarily for Social Studies (U.S. History, World History, Economics/Government). This year, I added CAHSEE Prep and Reading Development classes to my schedule for preps. I started teaching on a University Intern Credential through the Teach for America program.

When the Superintendent made a surprise announcement about all of us being “fired, but welcome to reapply for our jobs,” I thought to myself, wow, this man doesn’t have many people skills. However, I thought maybe it’d be a good process and a good plan for the school. There are, after all, several awful teachers I know about at the school. Little did I know, LAUSD doesn’t know much about good process or good plans....

The opaque presentations from administrators to faculty proceeded throughout January and February. We never learned much about how the school might be restructured and how the hiring/not hiring process would work. One day, I met with my supervisor, the AP over Special Education, and we discussed what he thought the school should improve over the next year. He told me he had no idea whatsoever about the changes being decided. Five minutes after I left the meeting, my friend sent me a text explaining that a Powerpoint about the New Fremont H.S. was available to the public in English through LAUSD’s website. I walked up to my AP and mentioned it. He wouldn’t look me in the eye.

From that moment, I learned that all research pointed to the destructive and failed propositions in that Powerpoint: 4 by 4 scheduling with almost zero time to plan, erasure of current Small Learning Communities with almost no planning or resources to support the beginning of new ones, no involvement of the school’s community in the planning, and absolutely no indication that this plan would address any of the important needs that teachers and staff have in order to improve in their work and improve the school for students to better succeed. Lastly, the school will undergo two enormous shifts as the new high schools open over the next 2-4 years. The District will never know if their “reconstitution” succeeds or fails. Thus, the District does not care to know whether this plan succeeds or fails.

I noticed since the beginning of January that my many supervisors were deliberately not answering questions, lying directly about what they knew, and creating a fearful environment. In our faculty meetings and staff meetings, the principal would say that there would be little chance of acquiring a job elsewhere. He said that non-permanent teachers would have a “RIF-proof fence” and would only be safe at Fremont H.S. My AP and Principal specifically stopped me and told me those things, too. The AP told me on many occasions that I would definitely be rehired if I chose to reapply.

At this point, I had basically decided that it would be unethical for me to participate in the destruction of the successful programs at the school as well as the community disenfranchisement. [Later, I realized the negative impact that union-busting would have on our students.] Around this time, I found that my UTLA representative had misinformed me. He’d told me I was permanent, and I found out that I was not. I had been vocal about my opposition after he’d told me I was protected by the contract. I was appalled to find that I still was not protected by the teacher’s union contract, and I wouldn’t be for over another year! My principal basically wouldn’t have to give any reason for “non-electing” me at the end of this school year. I didn’t know what to do -- could I do what I felt was morally right and still take care of my career? It seemed perhaps I couldn’t. I considered reapplication so as not to risk getting “non-elected” and ruining my
career (so other teachers told me) by opposing the new plan. I was told that even if the Principal signed my transfer papers, he could still non-elect me before I transferred, if he felt like it. I had grown to distrust him by this time anyway...

I was helping a group of permanent teachers and others to fight the reconstitution. I thought I could step back in the shadows and help without really being seen by my supervisors. Other teachers I respected told me I could do this, and it was partially for their sakes that I wanted to help fight against the reconstitution.

It all came to a head one Friday morning. We had called a press conference, and we had many journalists show up to listen to our protest of the reconstitution. I went to check on it and was asked by the other teachers/students/alums/staff to stay. Then, I was pushed to the front of our group. Then, I was pushed before cameras and asked to speak and represent our group. It became apparent that one of the most important roles the rest of my resistance group needed me to play was a public role, speaking for them sometimes. Uh oh.

I ran back to class, and during my breaks I made long phone calls to UTLA and to the California Commission on Teacher Credentials. I found out from the union that the latest news on non-permanent teachers at Fremont H.S. was that they would have to reapply or be automatically non-elected. I checked with him about resigning from the District, if that would help me avoid that situation. He said it would. I checked with the CCTC about making sure I could still file for my clear credential in a year if I resigned after this year. She told me I basically could still do it. I sent in my resignation by fax that afternoon. It is effective at the end of the day, June 30th.

-Terra Bennett

What do you think of Terra’s story? Is this fair? Should teachers be protected from arbitrary firings by due process?

(image by Terra Bennett, used with permission.)

The opinions expressed in Living in Dialogue are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.